I was planning on writing this review last night right after we finished watching Marriage Story. But, I waited. I thought that I needed more time. More time to process and contemplate what we had just watched. As I sit down to write this though, I am realizing that the further removed I am from the viewing experience, I am falling more and more in love with this film for very personal reasons. I see myself in this narrative. As a child of divorce, I understand this film on such a deep level. I really thought this would be a difficult story for me to watch. In reality though, I was affected in ways that I was not expecting. I remember witnessing the fights, the tense moments, and the downright ugliness of two people trying to untangle their lives, all while being caught in the middle. Noah Baumbach was able to give me a newfound perspective that I didn’t know I needed in the never-ending healing process of childhood trauma. His film provided a sense of understanding and empathy that I didn’t know I could ever find. This is what good film should do.
And what a good piece of film this was. I am going to just say suck it to all of the Netflix haters out there right at the top of this review. This was the perfect piece of cinema to view at home. It is a very intimate look into the lives of a family falling apart. I think it would have been weird to view this in large theater surrounded by strangers. Such an intimate story calls for an intimate viewing experience. I am grateful that I got to experience this story in my own house, with my husband next to me, and a glass of red wine in hand. To be fair, that is how I prefer to watch all movies, but it really worked for this one.
Noah Baumbach crafted a script that was so engaging it was hard to look away from the screen. With Netflix movies, it is so easy to pause to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water. There was no chance I was letting that happen last night though. A story that is so dialogue heavy has the potential to drag at times. That was so not the case here though. It is so engaging, emotional, and realistic, you can tell Baumbach is writing from experience. It is also directed in such a seamless way. There is one scene in particular where the couple is fighting that will absolutely destroy you. If it doesn’t, you don’t have a soul. There are simple choices Baumbach makes throughout that bring you closer to the characters and really allow you to feel their pain and uncertainty.
This brings me to the performances. The Academy may as well be engraving Adam Driver’s name into that Oscar now. I honestly have no words to describe what he did with this character. And if you know me, I am not often at a loss of words. Usually, it’s quite the opposite. This character could have easily been over the top. He inhabits this role in such a controlled and precise way that it is remarkable. I honestly cannot name another performance from 2019 that comes close to what he achieves in this film.
I am not Scarlett Johansson’s biggest fan on a personal level, but this is the second performance this year where she has proven she has what it takes to be a high caliber actress whenever she momentarily escapes the MCU. She plays a character that women know all too well. She has lost her sense of self in marriage and motherhood. As the film progresses, she begins to find herself again and it is really compelling to watch her find her voice in all of the noise.
I think one of the most interesting parts of Marriage Story is the message of trying to find balance in all of the aspects of our lives. We all have careers, relationships, families, and responsibilities. This story perfectly demonstrates what happens when we focus too much on one area. It is very evident throughout that these two characters do truly love each other. Their lives are just taking them in different directions. They want different things. And it may have been that way since the beginning, but they had always found a way to work through it. Until it all becomes too much. The differences become overwhelming and they have to make the choice to leave what they have created behind and start over.
This film is not for the faint of heart. Regardless of whether you have experience with divorce or not, this film is so well written, shot, and produced that you will feel like you have personal experience by the end. You feel like you are a part of this couple’s journey. You will want them to succeed. You will want them to be happy. And you will want them to work it out. In the end though, you realize that life doesn’t always go that way. And that’s okay.
I completely agree with everything Alex said about this film. Adam Driver’s work is easily the best male lead performance of the year, if not the best overall. The screenplay is also one of the top two of the year for me. I will say that before watching Marriage Story, I hadn’t seen any trailers or clips, just still images released by Netflix, so every line of dialogue and every movement was new to me, and I loved experiencing a movie for the first time this way.
Based on what little I knew beforehand, this really sounded like a modern day update of Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s not, and that’s because the dynamics between this couple are a lot different than in Kramer vs. Kramer. Most of the tension in the script comes from these two people trying desperately not to let this experience devolve into ugliness like divorces so often do. They know they can’t be together anymore, but it’s clear they’re trying not to make this more painful for the other person than it has to be.
Unfortunately, the legal process of divorce is one that exacerbates disagreements and hurt feelings. Most of the lawyers the main characters deal with are terrible people. They make some good arguments, occasionally, and generally try to do right by their clients, but they are out for blood, and they take a bad, but mostly civil, situation and do their best to turn it into a shit show. By the way, despite how much I am describing the plot and characters, I don’t consider any of what I said to be spoilers. Movies like this succeed or fail based on dialogue and performances. On both fronts, this film lives and breathes beautifully.
Speaking of performances, I think this is the best ensemble of the year. Alex already said a lot about Driver and Johansson, who are amazing, but the cast is rounded out by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever and Wallace Shawn. All of the characters are memorable and complex, and as often happens in real-life, you see relatives trying not to take sides or working to get both members of this couple through an unpleasant situation. So many films depict the family dynamic during a divorce as one spouse’s family united against the other spouse and their family. That probably does happen sometimes, but it’s not always the case. Marriage Story avoids that cliche and is far more realistic as a result.
The script is refreshingly funny too and much of that has to do with how it approaches extended family and friends’ reactions to what the couple is going through. There’s also a darkly funny bit towards the end of the film that is set up perfectly and pays off big. Finally, the story concludes in a way that ties perfectly back to the beginning. This is a masterful script. I’m rarely this torn over picking the best written movie from a given year, but between this and Parasite, 2019 has elevated the standard for great screenplays.